Plant-based eating – A global phenomenon or just another dietary fad? The increase of food chains such as Veggie Pret and online influencers and on-demand documentaries advocating plant-based nutrition seem to suggest if this is a fad, it isn’t one that will be going away fast…
People choose a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons including concern about the treatment of animals, health reasons, environmental concerns1, or because of taste and social trends. Plant-based diets are becoming more popular, especially among young people2, and if they are well-planned they can support healthy living at every age while reducing risk of cardiovascular disease3.
Plant-based eating (as the name suggests) focuses on foods primarily from plants. Now, being plant based doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy, which is important as an all-plant diet without essential nutrient supplementation is not viable for humans4. It simply means you are choosing more of your foods from plant sources - fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans - foods that are packed with fibre and nutrients per bite.
But don’t we need to be scared of red meat and dairy?While plenty of opinion is shared around the impact of red meat on health, a recent examination of five systematic reviews came to the conclusion that meat consumption is unlikely to be a causal factor of adverse health outcomes.5 Similarly, moderate dairy consumption (160-200g per day over 15 years) has been shown to reduce risk of all-cause mortality while maintaining a similar risk of cancer between dairy-consumers and those who excluded it.6
So why do we have this conflicting information?When you review a range of studies covering whole populations you often find that the majority of vegetarians or people that change to a vegetarian diet get healthier than a group of non-vegetarians. This is more than likely because their overall diet improves to include a wider variety of colourful nutrient-packed plants and/or they have adopted a vegetarian diet as part of a health kick in which they also pay a lot more attention other areas of their health such as exercising more regularly, reducing stress, or simply getting enough sleep.
A recent study showed this and concluded that “vegetarians had healthier lifestyle behaviours than non-vegetarians”7. In comparison to a health-focused vegetarian, the average omnivore doesn’t pay as much attention to their health, they exercise less, smoke more, and eat a smaller variety of plants.
Furthermore, a similar study from Australia separated vegans and vegetarians in the data and looked specifically at the difference between vegans and regular meat eaters. The study “did not reveal any statistically significant differences in mortality between vegans and regular meat eaters”8. This suggests even more that our health is a product of our overall habits and lifestyle.
What is the right plant-based diet for you?You don't need to go full vegetarian or vegan to get the best health benefits. When looking at your diet the focus should be on eating a high variety of colourful plants, while moderating your intake of animal products and reducing your intake of highly processed foods. Ultimately by undertaking a diet full of plants, it will be positive not just for your health and wellbeing but also for our world9.
1 Tilman D, Clark M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 2014;515:518–22
2 Larsson CL, Johansson GK. Dietary intake and nutritional status of young vegans and omnivores in Sweden. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:100–6
3 Kim H, Caulfield LE, Garcia-Larsen V, Steffen LM, Coresh J, Rebholz CM. Plant-Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All-Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle-Aged Adults. J Am Heart Assoc. 2019;8(16)
(Healthy plant‐based diets, which are higher in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee and lower in animal foods, were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and all‐cause mortality)
4 (Rogerson D Vegan Diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Int Soc Sports Nutrition. 2017 Sep 13;14:36)
5 Johnston BC, Zeraatkar D, Han MA, et al. Unprocessed Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Recommendations From the Nutritional Recommendations (NutriRECS) Consortium. Ann Intern Med. 2019;171:756–764.
6 Valeria Pala, Sabina Sieri, Paolo Chiodini, Giovanna Masala, Domenico Palli, Amalia Mattiello, Salvatore Panico, Rosario Tumino, Graziella Frasca, Francesca Fasanelli, Fulvio Ricceri, Claudia Agnoli, Sara Grioni, Vittorio Krogh, Associations of dairy product consumption with mortality in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)–Italy cohort, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 110, Issue 5, November 2019, Pages 1220–1230,
7 Appleby PN, Crowe FL, Bradbury KE, Travis RC, Key TJ. Mortality in vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians in the United Kingdom. Am J Clin Nutr 2016;103:218–30.
8 Mihrshahi S, Ding D, Gale J, Allman-Farinelli M, Banks E, Bauman AE. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality: evidence from a large population-based Australian cohort—the 45 and Up Study. Prev Med 2017;97:1–7.
9 Roger Harrabin, Plant-based diet can fight climate change – UN, 8 August 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49238749